The Power of a Game to Divide a Fanbase
The Last of Us Part II, despite winning the "Game of the Year" award for 2020, is one of the most controversial video games ever created in the past decade. From the moment of its release, it was seemingly destined to win not only the "Game of the Year" award but other awards as well, whether it really deserves it or not.
But what made it so conflicting is never because it's a bad game with mediocre design despite having good audiences, or not because it's a good game with bad audiences (or vice versa); what made the game so talk-about and, possibly, still disputed is because of the internal and external factors that made it to be one.
The Last of Us Part II
On June 14, 2013, Naughty Dog released a game that would change the lives of those who played it for a long time.
It became a cult-like classic console action-adventure, survival horror video game—one that surpassed the expectations of both audiences and critics alike. It was an immersive game built in a fictional post-apocalyptic era for players to explore. It gained a tremendous amount of positive support from players, especially the ones you can find on video streaming applications/websites like Twitch, Discord, or YouTube. The game's gameplay and beautiful graphics left its players in awe, and the narrative, storytelling, and bond built between the players and characters made it a hit. It became such a trend that, until today, people still find hidden or subtle clues within the game to expand their known knowledge of the game.
Seven years after the successful first installment of the game, a new Part II was released to its audiences available to play on the PS4. This new sequel of the game left audiences and critics very divided: the positive on the right, and the negative on the left. Why does this titular, almost legendary, critically-acclaimed, and outstanding video game left its players to either love or hate it?
How It All Started
The Last of Us is an action-adventure survival horror console video game for those of you who don't know what it is. It's a game set in a fictional post-apocalyptic era about a story of two characters in a world that had been ravaged by a powerful disease.
The entirety of the game begins when a mutated strain of fungus that infects the majority of the world's population. This fungus can infect humans until it gains control of their brains, leaving them with the urge to be extremely violent and cannibalistic for flesh. The disease spread like wildfire in dry forests.
The fungus is based on a real-world fungus, the cordyceps. Unlike in the game, it can only infect smaller insects and creatures like ants, fruit flies, and beetles. It was theorized or believed through various documents found in the game that the infection originated in South America. It spread when chimps or monkeys ingested fruits with ants infected with the cordyceps fungus. Their excrement was dropped on the floors of nearby livestock or farm factories with chickens or pigs. The livestock was then exported to various locations of the world for daily human consumption.
The initial chaos began when the mutated fungus began infecting their new hosts – humans – making them extremely violent and cannibalistic. Ergo, it turned them into zombies. But this infection is even worse than the typical zombie viral infection because the hosts, or the humans, are still alive. This means that once the fungus takes over the brain, it will be like a parasite, controlling its living hosts for its own will.
The fungus slowly kills its host by growing inside the body and sprouting on the outside. The hosts undergo stages of infection depending on how long they are infected with the disease. The hosts would, later on, find a hidden, dampened area to take their final rest, usually under rubbles of broken buildings, caves, or underground tunnels. The fungus will continue to grow out of the host's body, sucking out all of its nutrients, until they manage to propagate spores capable of infecting healthy humans once inhaled, therefore repeating the cycle.
The Story That Stuck to the Core
If you had played The Last of Us before, you can skip most of this part.
The Last of Us is not your typical survival game where you have to find resources and fend off cannibalistic creatures. It is more than that.
The story begins when a father named Joel, his brother Tommy, and his daughter Sarah tries to escape the ongoing chaos happening somewhere in Texas, USA. For players, this makes your heart skip a beat, and your hands become cold from sweat; constantly trying to find your way out away from the chaos, save the people you care about, and avoid the rampaging infected and their onslaught. Spoiler Alert: At the beginning of the first act of the game, Joel's daughter sadly passed away after getting shot by a soldier. This heavy, heart-wrenching first act would open you to what the game is all about; a playground for your emotions. But it didn't stop there.
20 years after the pandemonium, you play as Joel to explore the post-apocalyptic world. The character's new normal in this world is to keep living to survive and to keep surviving to live. Joel had been doing the same routine for two decades until he met a young girl named Ellie, who is immune to the fungus infection. Due to this immunity, Ellie can breathe fungus spores with ease and not get infected by bites of the infected creatures.
He was tasked by the leader of a human faction on a crusade to escort her to Washington, where the Fireflies' hospital is located, to try and create a vaccine or a cure out of her in an attempt to save humanity. The Fireflies are a human faction of rebel militias that go against the operations of the military that controls the remaining surviving human quarantine zones.
The duo went through months of travel, surviving in a world where both humans and infected can kill them, all while collecting necessary resources for your survival and keeping track of them. They also ran into a few survivors along the way, like Joel's brother and his human settlement in Jackson, Wyoming. They also lost some people along the way.
By the end of the first game's act, Joel learned that the only way to create a cure or vaccine from Ellie is to have her killed during surgery. At the end of the first game, Joel advertently "saved" an unconscious Ellie from the Fireflies, killing several people in the process, as well as their leader. The game had an open-ended conclusion, with Joel lying to Ellie about saving her from the Fireflies and saying that there are more of her kind.
The game received positive reviews from both critics and audiences alike, naming it one of the games of the century. It might be because of the world-building and exploration, the character development, the intense gameplay, and the mechanics. The emotions you'll feel throughout the journey will stick with you forever and leave you nostalgic for years.
It also left a long-lasting moral dichotomy of people that go for and against Joel's decision in saving Ellie from the Fireflies. This dichotomy would divide people on their opinions regarding either a chance of saving humanity or saving Ellie, who has become a foster child of Joel.
The Continuation of the Story
If you have already played The Last of Us: Part II, you can skip most of this part.
The Last of Us Part II still holds some of its predecessor's gameplay mechanics, such as finding parts for crafting and upgrading skills and weapons, the "Listen Mode" allowing players to locate enemies through a heightened sense of hearing and spatial awareness, indicated as outlines visible through walls and objects, and the overall combat against human and infected enemies. The second installment also added smarter artificial-intelligent enemies, guard dogs that can track the player's scent, and the ability to traverse the environment more openly by being able to reach higher vantage points by jumping and climbing.
The story picks up five years after the hospital incident. The game takes place in a war-zone-like environment of Seattle where two major human factions are fighting each other—the militia WLF or Wolves and the primitivist cult called Seraphites, colloquially known as Scars, due to the distinct scars on the sides of their cheeks.
In the first half of the game, Ellie and her friend's survival journey to Seattle begins when several members of the WLF killed Joel in a rundown cabin near Jackson (their settlement) during a blizzard. Seeking revenge, players will play as Ellie and journey through realistic landscapes of post-apocalyptic Seattle, where they believe the WLF settlement is located. The revenge-driven Ellie once again embarks on a journey of terminating infected and humans along the way, all while surviving on limited resources and upgrades.
This is also apparent in the second half of the game, where the players will then play as Abby. Abby is a member of the WLF faction and the one who killed Joel back in Jackson. The players soon learned that the reason why Abby killed Joel is that Joel killed Abby's father, a surgeon in the hospital, during the first game. The first half of the game ended with Ellie killing two of Abby's friends in an aquarium and confronting Abby in a theater.
In the second half of the game, three days earlier, Abby learns that one of her long-time friends has gone missing while investigating the Seraphites. The WLF leader believes he may have defected and plans to assault the Seraphites' island settlement. Searching for her friend, Abby is captured and witnesses the Seraphites shatter the arm of another runaway Seraphite named Yara. After being rescued by Yara's younger brother Lev, they arrive at the aquarium, where Abby finds her long-time friend.
He plans to sail to Santa Barbara, California, where the remaining Fireflies were supposedly regrouping. After a side mission to collect medical supplies for the Seraphite, Lev runs away to the Seraphite settlement to convince their mother to leave the cult. Abby pursues him, fending off an attack from Tommy. At the settlement, they discover Lev has killed his devout mother in self-defense.
As the WLF attack the Seraphite's settlement, Yara kills Isaac and sacrifices herself to let Abby and Lev escape. Abby and Lev return to the aquarium to find Owen killed. Owen's lover, Mel, who was pregnant, was also killed. Abby then finds a map leading to Ellie's theater hideout. The second half of the game resumes with Ellie and Abby's confrontation at the theater.
Learning that one of Ellie's friends is pregnant, Abby spares them at Lev's insistence and warns them to leave. That friend of Ellie is also her lover, named.
Dina. Sometime later, Ellie and Dina are living on a farm, taking care of Dina's baby, but Ellie suffers from post-traumatic stress, most specifically due to witnessing Joel's death right in front of her eyes. When Tommy arrives with information on Abby's whereabouts, Ellie leaves for Santa Barbara to kill her, despite Dina's pleas.
Abby and Lev arrive in Santa Barbara searching for the Fireflies but are captured by the Rattlers, slave-keeping bandits. Ellie is injured in a Rattler trap but escapes and rescues Abby and Lev, who have been weakened by weeks of torture. Threatening to kill Lev, Ellie forces Abby to fight her. Ellie overpowers her, losing two fingers in the process, but lets her and Lev live and leave. Ellie returns to the farmhouse and finds it empty. She plays Joel's guitar, recalling her promise to Joel to try to forgive him, and leaves.
The Roots: a Vicious Cycle of Conflict, Vengeance, and Violence
The Last of Us Part II was met with positive reviews from game critics and negative reviews from audience critics. A notable thing in both games is how they have happy highs and depressive lows that either captivate the players with joy, make them cry, fill them with laughter or drown them in sorrow.
Joel became such an integral part of the whole first game that fans and critics became attached to the character. It was a character beloved and somehow praised for being the father figure for Ellie. And since Joel died in the second game in the most shocking, brutal, and undeserving possible way, it became a huge slap in the fandom's face.
But in the eyes of a storyteller, it was one of the main reasons for the story to progress. The developers of the game, as well as the talented voice actors, did give a heads-up to the players that they will try their best to make the game feel either loved or hated. And I think they really did a good job of revealing these emotions to its players.
Part II not only revolves around a storyline of survival, but it also revolves around human conflict. It is present in both the first game and the second game. It also doesn't only rely heavily on human conflict but also the conflicts of emotions players will feel towards the characters they are playing. And I think that this kind of conflict is more prominent and visible in the second game. When you kill a human enemy, that enemy will shout names, taunt, or even beg.
The developers humanized these enemies to create a conflicting feeling for your morality as a player. There's also a part in the game during Abby's gameplay where you have to reach the attacking enemy's location. The enemy was sniping and shooting you on a bridge. You get the urge to take revenge on that unknown enemy during the gameplay until you meet him in a cutscene. The unknown enemy that was continuously shooting you with a sniper on the bridge turned out to be Tommy, and suddenly you feel conflicted about your urge for pursuing him.
The game also did a good job of subtly always reminding the players that violence isn't always the answer. Whether you get the message or not, violence begets violence. When you listen to some of the characters' dialogue, they sometimes ask you whether what you're doing is right or wrong; they are not doubting your capabilities for finishing the game but making sure that the choices you make in the game matter; everything has consequences. It is one of the game's roots that goes on and on in a never-ending cycle, and the only way to break it is for one or more of the characters to acknowledge it during or after the process.
The game speaks volumes on the cycle of revenge, as well. In the first act of the game, we see Abby killing Joel because he killed her father. Ellie then goes after Abby to kill her because she killed her "father." In the game, we, as players, can collect and read letters and documents from other survivors. If you paid attention to these letters, it unfolded a bigger picture as to why the WLF and the Scars are going against each other: it was all for revenge for their killed loved ones. And the reason why the hostility of these two factions against each won't stop is that each faction was as revenge-driven as Ellie and Abby in the game.
The cycle of revenge deepens when Ellie killed most of Abby's friends, even one that was pregnant. Abby then killed one of Ellie's friends, the father of Dina's baby. The cycle keeps on and on until both of their urges for revenge were either met or hindered by an outside force, such as Lev stopping Abby from killing Dina in the first half of the ending and Ellie letting a tortured Abby and Lev go in the second half of the ending.
I think I can make an analogy of Part II in one featured animated movie. If you've watched Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke, two opposing factions were also in conflict because they are trying to protect their own. In the movie, there was a "middle-ground" character that sees this pointless war and tries not to take any sides but to make the two sides make peace with each other.
Part II, however, doesn't have this element of middle ground. Due to years of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, the only way to live is to kill or be killed. There is almost no character in The Last of Us universe that showed altruistic values to bring two opposing sides together.
The Roots: Knowing Perspectives, Parallelisms, and Self-Healing
You won't understand someone unless you are in their shoes and travel the same journey. The game made a great choice by letting the players see the different perspectives of these characters, the people, and the factions they belong to.
As players, we know these people, factions, or characters, in the game. But the conflicting members don't know much about each other, so they resort to protecting their own by trying to eliminate others that are outside of their group. In their world, peace was never an option. And even if it was, it doesn't last that long since deep cuts and wounds from factions of people will reopen due to conflict sooner or later.
We can see this behavior in real-life, where nations and people escalate to violence and war because they all have different views in life. And this sort of behavior is prevalent in Part II, with the characters almost lacking empathy for those that are not like them especially other groups of people or people that are their enemies.
We, as players, see the good and bad happening on these people and factions, while these people and factions only see the bad of each other in the game.
We can also see various parallelism in both Ellie's and Abby's stories. The first parallelism is when Ellie was on a revenge-driven quest to find Joel's killer as to Abby's revenge-driven quest to find her father's killer. The next parallelism is when Abby, somehow, became Lev's foster parent and goes through a plotline similar to how Joel's and Ellie's plotline went in the first game.
There's another subtle parallelism in the game that players might have not caught. It is when Abby saved the runaway kids from the Seraphites that were hunting them, therefore almost changing herself and defecting from the WLF, and then during Ellie's gameplay where the players learned that she knew about Joel lying to her and then finally gave him a chance for forgiveness in her flashbacks.
The last parallelism is seen in the final act of the game. Ellie and Abby fought on the final act, and Ellie almost killed Abby in the process. But Ellie stopped when she recalled a peaceful Joel playing his favorite guitar on his porch. During the game, Ellie's flashbacks are always the scene where Joel is killed. But this time, it hits differently, and she decided to let Abby and Lev go.
The last flashback was her giving Joel a chance for forgiveness for what he had done to her the night before he was murdered by Abby. The game closes with a cinematic of Ellie leaving their abandoned barn house to probably look for Dina and their baby, who might have returned to Jackson, and leaving Joel's favorite guitar in the barn.
I think this symbolizes her finally letting go of her hatred toward Abby and Joel. At the same time, it symbolizes her forgiving them for the mental and emotional pain they inflicted upon her. It is a powerful, bittersweet scene for the game's conclusion, one that leaves its players to either love or hate the game.
Internal and External Issues of the Game
I've said that one key issue of the game, and why players hate the way the story was told, is Joel's sudden death and, somehow, not feeling that satisfying emotion when they are about to eliminate his murderer. But I think that's the whole point.
When you play as Ellie, you have nothing in mind but to find Abby and the WLF responsible for his death. The game controls you like the fungus infection—due to your attachment to Ellie and Joel, you became as violent as the infected, and you became as violent as Ellie during her quest. Ellie, at the start of the game, and even in part one, is wholely intact to the players and to Joel.
But as part two progresses, her character slowly drifts away into nothing but a hollow shell. Remember when Joel loses his daughter and then went on with Ellie on a journey in the first game? It contrasted and complimented that arc perfectly to let players realize how people lose themselves in process of trauma, despair, and guilt. And the players had finally had the chance to experience that journey of losing themselves, let alone experience having to play a character, all because of one significant catalyst.
When you play as Abby, you realized the reason why she did it and what she went through that paralleled with Joel's and Ellie's journey in the first game. The game makes you see the world through Abby's eyes. And though she is as violent as Ellie, her perception changed when she met Lev, who was supposed to be her faction's enemy. She became the Joel of the first game that people didn't seem to recognize. And this is not because the developers want us to feel empathy for a character; they want us to feel what it is like to slowly pull yourself out of a very dark place and find another meaning in life.
The game tells you that there is no black and white in these factions, characters, and arcs—only bittersweet shades of gray. They did what they had to do for either the protection of their own or for revenge. They did what they had to do because of their internal struggles, conflicts, and motivations. And when both Abby and Ellie broke out from this cycle of revenge, the cycle of violence ceased. It is one of those games where character development is a pivotal point in the story.
I guess one more issue about the game is the leaks that happened a month before it was finally released. One thing players of this titular game didn't like, especially if they are much-awaited, was the sudden leaks. The issue was about a former Naughty Dog employee that leaked the game's story in an internet blog post. Those that read it didn't like it, especially because the leaked article depicted most of Part II's story. It became an issue since players that had read it lost interest in playing the game, especially when the leak confirmed the death of their favorite game character. The sudden spoiler of the much-awaited game was definitely upsetting.
Even now, the game still gets conflicting reviews. But what really shocked me is that some people, especially those that belong to cult-like fandoms, have been bombarding the developers, Naughty Dog's employees, and the voice actors with multiple threats and harassment. I mean, we get it that you don't like the game. But you need not go as far as wishing horrendous things to these people who worked hard on the game.
Game developers from both games have also been exposed to daunting long work hours. Crunch culture within the gaming industry is no laughing matter and, apparently, a recurring theme to big game companies. Developers often suffer burnout from being overworked, and big gaming firms also often impose employee layoffs.
The game itself might also be having issues because of its agenda, especially for those that have social and political beliefs in the far-right, depicting it as social justice propaganda. The game includes homosexual and racial beliefs that some may find pretty offensive, depending on what they stand for and believe. The game also included a nudity scene, one that many players don't seem to like.
Afterword: End of Another Story
Despite the mixed critical positive reviews from game critics and negative backlash from most audiences, The Last of Us Part II's gameplay mechanics, upgraded strategies, magnificent storytelling, life-like interactive environments, intense acting, peak attention to detail, and top-notch combat systems still holds the pique of being one of the best games out there. And even though fans, players, critics, and watchers may continue the ongoing conflict because of the different opinions of the game for a long time, the game still made a mark on them—whether it's good or bad.
© 2020 Darius Razzle Paciente